Lifestyle

OpEVAC Veterans Use Cannabis, Meditation And Community To Heal

The medical cannabis community in Northern California has a long history of supporting veterans with cannabis medicine, inspiring other communities across the nation to do the same. In the 1990s I remember going to Dennis Peron’s Cannabis Buyers Club in San Francisco and meeting vets who were finding relief with cannabis and community. When I helped the Berkeley Patients Group with a documentary video in the early 2000s, support groups for vets offered a place for folks to meet and heal together.

In my own dispensary, Harborside Health Center (opened in 2006), the tradition was carried on by some of the extraordinary employees I was lucky enough to have on my team – some of them vets themselves – who launched Harborside Heroes in 2014. Thanks to these employees, what started at Harborside has now grown across the Bay Area to include multiple dispensaries, helping even more vets heal.

Now called OpEVAC, they’ve also added a meditation component to the support groups, elevating the healing, one breath at a time. In honor of Veterans Day, I caught up with Harborside alum Ryan Miller and Jaene Leonard to gain a deeper understanding of what they’re doing to support vets with cannabis medicine and meditation practices.

How did OpEVAC get started?

Ryan Miller: Two former Harborside employees, Terryn Buxton and Aaron Tran (a Navy veteran), launched Oakland Extracts and funded the startup costs of Operation EVAC as part of their generous corporate social responsibility. Terryn came up with the name and we launched on Memorial Day 2016.

What’s different about OpEVAC? How does it help vets?

RM: What differentiates OpEVAC is our guided discussions and Jaene’s iRest meditation. Compassionate (free) cannabis is a great harm reduction substitute for alcohol, street drugs, and some pharmaceuticals–and it’s also great bait. Free cannabis incentivizes veterans to emerge from trauma-informed hibernation and isolation to create relationships and contribute to a community of peers. That’s where the magic happens. The vast majority of veteran service organizations are also dominated by cis white males. The majority of our community are Black and indigenous veterans of color, several are queer, and women are centered by having the first and last words in our discussions.

What is iRest?

Jaene Leonard: I found iRest while designing a class for veterans for my 200-level yoga teacher training 15 years ago. Integrative Restoration (iRest) Yoga Nidra is an evidence-based experiential practice (based on 3,000 year-old teachings). The specific protocol was developed by a team led by Richard Miller and Robin Carnes, along with Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in a 2006 feasibility study treating soldiers returning from combat. I’m now a Certified iRest® Instructor. iRest is offered in military settings all over the country. iRest teachers are also serving other communities, including the unhoused, human trafficking victims, and first responders.

How does cannabis work with meditation?

JL: Cannabis and meditation work synergistically to help with PTSD, anxiety, depression, insomnia–both cannabis and meditation affect the brain networks we operate under. You know that moment when the THC kicks in, when you feel like you’re at home in yourself? Meditation fosters the same feeling, because both cannabis and meditation downregulate one brain network, and upregulate another.

Normally, we humans operate in the Default Mode Network (DMN) of the brain. This is the network that keeps us distracted–feeling crunched by time, scrolling endlessly and aimlessly on our phones, stuck in recursive thinking patterns, gauging our progress against the progress of others, feeling jealous, worrying about what others think about us, jumping from thought to thought to thought, feeling alone.

Both cannabis and meditation deactivate the DMN and activate the Task Positive Network (TPN)–so named because you can also reach it by doing some task by rote–like when you zone out doing the dishes, for instance. Operating from the TPN, we feel a bit outside of the constraints of time. There are spaces between thoughts, and we feel connected–to everything and everyone. We feel a sense of compassion for others. We may get a sense that everything is okay, maybe even beautiful or wonderful. By the way, you can also access the TPN by singing your favorite song out loud, or walking around outside – research out of UCSF and UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center says experiencing ‘awe’ in nature brings on a sense of wellbeing.

What is the latest iteration of OpEVAC?

RM: Prop 64 prohibited gifting of cannabis; we helped organize and advocate for three years to pass SB-34, restoring compassion to California cannabis culture. When the pandemic hit, we quickly pivoted to three weekly meetings on Zoom, which we’re still doing. Although the digital divide constricted our membership, online meetings have built virtual bridges to enable veterans to login from New York, Hawaii, Florida, Colorado, Texas, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Connecticut, Illinois, New York, South Carolina, and Washington. We meet in-person quarterly at Skylab in Oakland, where veterans receive compliant SB-34 distributions of up to the equivalent of 8 ounces. The Sweetleaf Collective sources our donated product and LoFi Delivery is our retail partner. We’ve also expanded our philanthropic portfolio to psilocybin, for which Oakland’s Galaxy Labs is our generous sponsor.

We’ve logged over 800 meetings to date and hundreds of pounds of distributed cannabis.

What’s next for OpEVAC?

RM: OpEVAC will be rebranding and relaunching Memorial Day 2023 as Compassionate Veterans. We will continue with our Zoom meetings, and our four in-person meetups a year will include community service events to address potential veteran-exceptionalism/ veteran-entitlement and restore an identity of service to country and community–non-violently. Healing people heals people. Refugees and victims of American militarism are some of our intended beneficiaries of Compassionate Veterans giving back.

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